The Riggs Report: Is Sen. Feinstein vulnerable?

October 19, 2017

Fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon launches his Senate candidacy

Have Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon’s ambitions exceeded his good judgment? Termed out of the state Senate next year, de Leon has been pondering his next move for months. On Wednesday, he made it official—he will seek to unseat veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, next year.

The move immediately set off closed-door chatter among Senate Democrats about whether de Leon could continue to serve effectively as their leader while also running a statewide race.

Bob Hertzberg, of Van Nuys, and Holly Mitchell, of Los Angeles, are commonly mentioned at the Capitol as likely prospects to take over as the Senate leader.

None of this would be a surprise to de Leon, who is well-acquainted with the impatience of the ambitious members who serve in the Legislature. It’s likely he is already working to identify a chosen successor so that he can control the timing of his departure.

Here’s why this matters: It’s in de Leon’s best political interests to hang on to the pro tem job as long as possible. As the leader of the Senate, he has greater ability to approach deep-pocketed donors than as one of 40 senators. Political power is a magnet for political donations.

De Leon already faces a steep challenge in raising the millions he will need to finance an expensive statewide race against a veteran incumbent like Feinstein. She has been moving to lock up endorsements and fundraising commitments from big donors.

According to federal disclosure records, Feinstein had nearly $4 million in her campaign account at the beginning of October, but has reportedly picked up her fundraising pace in the weeks since. Feinstein’s long tenure in California politics—she spent 10 years as mayor of San Francisco before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992—has given her a deep well of connections.

Feinstein also has the advantage of strong name recognition from her years in Washington, along with a reputation as a pragmatist who can work effectively with the opposite party and with diverse interest groups.

De Leon acknowledged at a campaign event in Los Angeles on Wednesday that fundraising will be an issue for him. A member of the state Legislature since 2006, he portrayed himself as an outsider who is willing to defy the Democratic Party establishment in taking on Feinstein. She’s been endorsed by Sen. Kamala Harris, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other prominent Democrats.

“We are living in unique times facing unprecedented challenges that require new ideas and new energy,” de Leon said. “The D.C. playbook is obsolete.”

De Leon is also counting on public anger with President Donald Trump to fuel his campaign, saying “California will lead the resistance” to Trump policies.

Democratic party leaders don’t like Trump either, but many would rather put resources into a Senate race next year that’s not already in Democratic hands. And California voters will need to be convinced that this race, as Feinstein supporters describe it, is not just about de Leon’s ambitions to move up the political ladder.